Why more of Hawaii’s hikes are closing

This Oct. 11, 2014, photo provided by the Hawaii state Department of Land and Natural Resources shows Sacred Falls in Hauula, Hawaii. The state is pushing back against hikers who continue to illegally visit the waterfall in a closed state park with an online video showing people being cited for trespassing. 

Dan Dennison/AP

In recent years, more of Hawaii’s hikes have been closed to the public. While once upon a time, trails like Mariner’s Ridge (also known as Kaluanui Ridge), Makapuu Tom Tom and Kamehame Ridge were accessible to the public, that’s no longer the case.

The reason can be traced back to Mother’s Day in 1999, when eight hikers were killed and 50 more were injured due to a massive rockslide at Sacred Falls State Park on Oahu. This was a publicly accessible trail at the time of the tragedy. Lawsuits were filed and the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. The state paid $8.56 million to the families and the hike has been closed ever since.

“That was the tipping point of the start of closing trails,” Ralph Valentino, a spokesperson for the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Corporation, told SFGATE. The nonprofit is a vocal advocate for the trails, and about a year ago, counted 29 trails that have been closed in the past 10 years.

“If the judge would’ve gone the other way and said, ‘Look, I’m sorry. If the state physically did anything to you on purpose, we would pay you. But no, you went and saw natural beauty and an Act of God occurred, and the state isn’t responsible for that,’” Valentino continued, “if that’s how he would’ve judged, then we would be hiking on almost all of these trails today.”

Valentino said he doesn’t think it’s fair that other places, such as the national parks or even swimming in the ocean, don’t have the same legal issues to the extent that trails do.

“If someone goes to the beach, they go swimming and a shark eats them, the beach is closed for one to maybe three days and it reopens,” he said. “Why doesn’t that happen up in the mountains where the trails are?”

As a result of the Sacred Falls case, the state created a formal signage program to provide the state and county more protection from liability. However, with the vast amount of property the state manages, whether a trail or property has enough signage to warn of danger is a subjective matter, such as in the Sacred Falls case where there were signs, although some were missing, bent or graffitied.

Since 1999, lawsuits against the state have continued, and settlements ranging from thousands of dollars to millions have been awarded due to accidents on public land.

The precedent these judgments set has also had an effect on private landowners who have in the past given hikers access to trails on their property. Now more of them are putting up no trespassing signs and chaining gates for fear of liability should someone get injured or die on their land.  

In the Hawaii Revised Statute 520, the state has the ability to negotiate or indemnify private landowners so that access can be maintained, but insufficient resources have made it a challenge.

“There’s over 280 trails on the island that are documented,” Aaron Lowe, Oahu trails and access specialist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, told SFGATE. Lowe and his team of two full-time employees maintain and manage 48 trails on the island that are open to the public, which is about 100 miles of pathway. These do not include trails managed under other jurisdictions, such as state parks (Aiea Loop, Sacred Falls, Diamond Head, Kahana Valley and Makapuu), nor trails maintained by private landowners.

Lowe said he would really like to expand the number of trails available to the public, but his team is kept busy managing urban trails that are popular with visitors.

“We’ve had to put a lot of resources into the high use trails,” said Lowe, who manages Manoa Falls Trail, which regularly receives about 1,000 people per day. “Some of the things that are a little bit more remote, it would be nice if we could make an arrangement with the private landowner.”

Indemnification would protect the landowner against liability, but it’s never been tested, Lowe said. Landowners are uncertain whether it would truly protect them, so instead they close the trails.

A gate is locked at the entrance to the now-closed Sacred Falls State Park in Hauula, Hawaii, on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Hawaii officials are turning to social media to counter online photos and statements encouraging people to visit the waterfall, where a landslide killed eight people more than 15 years ago.

A gate is locked at the entrance to the now-closed Sacred Falls State Park in Hauula, Hawaii, on Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2015. Hawaii officials are turning to social media to counter online photos and statements encouraging people to visit the waterfall, where a landslide killed eight people more than 15 years ago.

Audrey McAvoy/AP

Despite the closure of hikes, many people continue to hike them illegally. This has been a growing problem since the popularity of social media. In 2015, more than 100 citations were given out to people going to hike Sacred Falls — and that’s likely just a small fraction of those who actually hiked the trail. On top of that, since the closure of Sacred Falls, several people had to be rescued from this trail. In other words, not only were the hikers’ lives in danger, but so were the lives of the rescuers.

Then, there’s the famous — and illegal — Haiku Stairs, also known as Stairway to Heaven, in Windward Oahu. It hasn’t been legal to hike the stairs since 1987. The hike is unmaintained, meaning that the 3,922 steep steps climbing up the Koolau Mountains are not in great condition and are often cited as a safety concern.

Despite these facts, an estimated 4,000 people hike the trail every year. Consequently, local government has decided to take more drastic actions. In September 2021, the Honolulu City Council unanimously voted to remove Haiku Stairs. However, the decision is not finalized yet. Should the removal proceed, it is expected to start in summer 2022.

Social media posts make these hikes seem accessible and much easier than they actually are. Puu Manamana (aka Crouching Lion), another Oahu hike, has gained popularity on Instagram, where (nearly) no one mentions the steep, muddy incline or sheer cliff drop.

“Crouching Lion has always been closed,” Lowe told SFGATE. If a trail is not listed on the Na Ala Hele Trail and access website, then it is an illegal hike unless it falls under a different jurisdiction. 

“If there are officers seeing you going on that trail, then you can be cited for going on that trail,” Lowe continued. “But again it’s a capacity issue, there’s not a lot of officers within our enforcement division that can go and cite people regularly on these trails.”

Social media isn’t the only medium at fault. Hawaii guidebooks succumb to the same flaws. For example, the “Oahu Revealed” guidebook includes Puu Manamana — and doesn’t mention that it’s unsanctioned. Even earlier editions of the guidebook that were published prior to Puu Manamana’s closure do not include anything about the hiking conditions or proper safety precautions.

In response to social media posts and guidebooks, thousands of hikers tackle trails without considering proper safety precautions. As a result, there have been several injuries and multiple fatalities at Puu Manamana. 

Aside from these, hikers have gotten injured on other trails that are unsanctioned, and some risky hikes have led to deaths. Honolulu fire Chief Manuel Neves cites reasons for rescues as being because hikers are either poorly prepared, underestimating hazards, overestimating abilities or disregarding signs.  

“Having been on the State Na Ala Hele Advisory Council for over two years, I have come to realize the state has no intention of keeping trails open to the public or is willing to fight to get closed trails reopened,” said Valentino. “All this visual information is out there and it’s pulling you up to the mountains to say come here and see the waterfalls and these beautiful sights, and yet they close the trails.”

The state of Hawaii has rarely changed the status of a hike from closed to open. In other words, once that change is made, it’s essentially permanent.